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Review of I AM NOT A WITCH (DVD)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No (but a short film included IS suitable for all)
2017, 93 min., Color
Drama
Film Movement
Not rated (would be PG for some cruelty and adult situations; short film is G)
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: English, Bemba, Nyanja, and Tonga with English subtitles
Bonus features: B+ (Mwansa the Great, 23 min.)
I Am Not a Witch trailer
Mwansa the Great trailer
Amazon link

When I was growing up, National Geographic was a popular flip-through at doctors’ offices because children had a strong curiosity about how their counterparts lived in other countries. Around the same time, teachers were providing us with names and addresses of children from different nations, encouraging us to communicate with pen pals who lived on the other side of the world. The correspondences usually lasted only a few months and sometimes a year, but we got some sense of other lifestyles that way, too. And on TV, we watched travel shows like Lowell Thomas’s High Adventure, where he took us to exotic places to show how other people lived. I can’t help but wonder, for all the time today’s children spend on the Internet, Do they access similar points of contact that would give them a broader sense of the world?

If not, then a film like I Am Not a Witch has even greater value than as a well-crafted film that earned a BAFTA award for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director, or Producer. It’s also as an eye-opening look at life in rural Zambia, where we meet an eight-year-old girl who’s accused of being a witch after witnessing a minor mishap. That’s right, a witch, like those poor women from the 1692-93 Salem witch trials—an event that would become a blot on America’s past. This film from Rungano Nyoni may have comic moments, but what viewers mostly witness is young Shula’s reality, and that reality should shock and touch viewers young and old.

Nyoni based her screenplay on real stories of women in Zambia who were accused of being witches and subsequently sent to witch camps, which Nyoni researched in the African nation of Ghana. With a gentle tone and matter-of-fact storytelling, the film plays out like a fable. But because the young girl accepts her fate so stoically, it also feels like an understated slice of Zambian life with undertones that suggest Nyoni may be poking fun of western cultures who have no idea witch camps exist. More

Review of THE CAPTAIN (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No (age 14 and up?)
2017, 120 min., Black and White
War drama (w/dark comic moments)
Music Box Films
Not rated (would be R for language, violence, some nudity)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: German 5.1 Dolby Digital
Bonus features: B
Trailer
Amazon link

The Captain (2017) isn’t a movie for kids. Then again, neither is Schindler’s List, which my daughter saw in her 10th grade history class during their discussion of the holocaust.

Both are films that stay with you, and for the same reason: mass executions by Germans during WWII. Except that The Captain isn’t a holocaust film. Set in Germany during the final months of the war, it’s based on the true story of Willi Herold, who became separated from his unit and may or may not have deserted. In the film, as in real life, he stumbles onto an abandoned staff car in which he finds a suitcase containing the uniform of a Luftwaffe captain. After celebrating his good fortune he dons the uniform. And putting it on and acting the part begins to have the same effect on him as the ring did on Gollum.

Shot in black and white in German with English subtitles, The Captain is a fascinating film, and not just because it’s so totally different from all the other WWII films that depict the battles, struggles, and individual stories of bravery and survival. It’s also a provocative psychological study. We wonder:

Is it the uniform and the role-playing that makes this corporal suddenly behave like a sadistic German officer? Is it another example of the intoxicating effect that power has? Is it an individual pursuit of irony, with Willi getting back at life for almost having him executed as a deserter by embracing some deserters and “lost” soldiers as his own private army but choosing to execute others? Is Willi the victim of PTSD, or is he representative of what happens when soldiers realize their side has lost and order and discipline start to break down? Did the situation bring out the evil in him, as it did with the British schoolchildren in Lord of the Flies? Or was Willi evil from the start, and the universe just provided him with a chance for that evil to come out? More

Review of BREAKING BIG (DVD)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No
2018, 320 min. (12 episodes), Color
Biography-Documentary
PBS
Not rated (would be PG for some language)
Aspect ratio: 1.66:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

It’s a nice idea—profiling highly successful people to try to nail down what it was that made the difference—but Breaking Big ultimately is more fascinating than it is a template for how to break big yourself.

For this PBS biographical series, host Carlos Watson sought out and interviewed phenomenally successful people who had a breakthrough moment that made all the difference in the world. Featured here are all 12 celebrities from Season 1:

—South African comedian Trevor Noah, whose quick rise landed him the plum job of Jon Stewart’s replacement on The Daily Show.

—Restaurateur, TV host, and author Eddie Huang (Fresh off the Boat), who turned a passion for cooking and his Asian-American upbringing into a best selling book and other successes.

Danai Gurira, a Zimbabwe native whose play about her African heritage brought her acclaim and led to roles on The Walking Dead and Black Panther.

Jason Aldean, who trusted his nonstandard rock-infused approach to country music and made it big. More

Review of MURDER BY DEATH (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No (13 and up?)
1976, 94 min., Color
Mystery-comedy
Shout! Factory
Rated PG for some language and crude/sexual references
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA Mono
Bonus features: C
Trailer
Amazon link

It’s not often that you hear of a TV comedy writer who goes on to become one of his generation’s most successful playwrights, but that’s what happened with Neil Simon, who started by writing for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows and became the toast of Broadway for two decades, during which he produced such long-running plays as Come Blow Your Horn, Barefoot in the Park, and, most famously, The Odd Couple.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Murder by Death has a very staged feel to it, with many of the scenes performed in a single dining room at a neogothic mansion. Typical of Simon, the humor is also the gentle kind, with plenty of verbal and conceptual jokes that make you smile . . . and occasionally laugh out loud. But this murder-mystery comedy was produced in 1976, two years after fellow Sid Caesar writer Mel Brooks amused audiences with the irreverent Blazing Saddles. You could do things like that back in the ‘70s, when Archie Bunker was TV’s undisputed king of non-political correctness. Now? Not so much.

Simon’s clever Murder by Death pokes fun of the mystery genre and also lampoons the great detectives in pop literature and movies. The premise is simple: an eccentric named Lionel Twain who lives at 22 Twain, invites the world’s best detectives to “dinner and a murder.” Once they get past the blind butler (Alec Guinness) and deaf-and-dumb cook (Nancy Walker) and are seated in the dining room, Twain announces that at midnight there will be a murder—someone in this very room will die, and he challenges them to crack this case. His motive? Twain wants to prove that he’s more brilliant than the world’s most brilliant detectives.

James Coco is Milo Perrier, a character obviously that’s based on and pokes fun of Hercule Poirot, while Peter Falk plays hardboiled Sam Spade clone Sam Diamond, Elsa Lanchester is Jessica Marbles (Miss Marple), David Niven and a very young Maggie Smith are Dick and Dora Charleston (The Thin Man’s Nick and Nora Charles), and Peter Sellers plays Sidney Wang (Charlie Chan), who’s accompanied this time by an adopted Number 3 son from Japan. It’s the Chan character—with a Caucasian playing an Asian speaking in pidgin English and offering up fortune cookie advice—that contemporary audiences might find cringe-worthy, as are the original Charlie Chan B-movies in which European-Americans always played the Chinese detective. But like a good satirist or caricaturist, Simon identifies the prominent traits of each detective and plays them for laughs—including stereotypes. More